The life and legacy of Leonard Braithwaite, Ontario’s first Black MPP

Elected in 1963, the Liberal took on segregated schools and sexism — and faced prejudice at Queen’s Park
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Feb 18, 2021
MPP Leonard Braithwaite and his wife, Anne, at the Ontario legislature in October 1963. (John Boyd/The Globe and Mail)

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Leonard Braithwaite acknowledged that he’d had to undergo a more intense “baptism of fire” than most MPPs. “Many people still approach me and tell me how rapidly I have gained my place in politics. When I remind them that many of the province’s MPPs and even federal representatives took their place with no previous experience, they are somewhat taken aback,” the first Black politician elected to the Ontario legislature told an audience at the University of Windsor in 1965. “But I feel that this is necessary for the man of my race who must lead the way.”

The son of Caribbean immigrants, Braithwaite was born in 1923 and raised in Toronto’s Kensington Market. By his late teens, he employed half a dozen people to sell newspapers on Spadina Avenue. He attempted to sign up for the RCAF during the Second World War but was denied because of his race — however, he returned repeatedly until a sympathetic officer got him in. In the decade following the war, he earned degrees at the University of Toronto and Harvard University. “I was warned that no Negro had ever gone through business school and that it would be pretty hard for one to be successful afterwards,” he told the Toronto Star in 1963. “But I figured someone had to be first, so I decided to work for a Bachelor of Commerce degree.”

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During his first day as an executive trainee in New Jersey, the staff walked out of the cafeteria when he sat down. After returning to Canada, he attended Osgoode Hall Law School — serving as president of its student body — and then established a legal practice in 1958. Two years later, Braithwaite won a seat on the Etobicoke Board of Education by a wide margin; he achieved a similar result when he ran for Etobicoke council in 1962. “Len was comfortable among all groups of people and that allowed him to have an impact and impress many in the broader community,” observed historian Sheldon Taylor. He was highly active in the community, participating in residential associations and sponsoring youth sports teams.

When he decided to run for the legislature in 1963, Braithwaite was the third Black candidate to seek a provincial seat. The first had been civil-rights and labour activist Stanley Grizzle, who’d run in York East for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the predecessor of the NDP) in 1959. Grizzle finished third, earning just over 9,000 votes. Afterwards, he told the Calgary Herald that the results showed that “perhaps society is at last reaching the point where a man is judged on more vital qualities than race or creed.” In 1962, Grizzle was hired by the province as a labour-relations officer, becoming the Ministry of Labour’s first Black employee. In 1978, Pierre Trudeau appointed Grizzle as Canada’s first Black citizenship-court judge. (Grizzle’s daughter, Nerene Virgin, later starred as Jodie in the 1980s TVO children’s series Today’s Special.)

The second Black legislative candidate secured his nomination a week before Braithwaite in August 1963. Like Grizzle, Jack White was involved in the labour movement. His brother Bill had been the first Black person to run for a federal seat (in Toronto’s Spadina riding in 1949), while his sister Portia was a noted concert singer and vocal teacher. Running for the NDP in the Toronto riding of Dovercourt, White vowed to protect union-bargaining rights and fight discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, race, and religion. He felt he could relate to one of the main issues in his riding — unemployment — as he had just been laid off from his job at the American Motors plant in Brampton. During the campaign, spurred by concerns over racial strife in the United States, White and several constituents travelled to Buffalo to speak about the opportunities for Black people to compete on an equal footing with anyone, including when running for political office. White finished third with over 3,400 votes; the seat was won by future provincial Liberal leader Andrew Thompson.

campaign ad
Campaign ad from the September 12, 1963, edition of the Weston Times-Advertiser.

During the Liberal nomination meeting in Etobicoke on August 29, 1963, Braithwaite received what the Globe and Mail described as “persistent if disorganized vocal support” from members of the “Braithwaite Legal Eagles” boys lacrosse team he sponsored and from the Rexdale Lacrosse Majorettes. He ran on a platform supporting more educational funding, old-age pensions, lower mortgage rates, and medicare.

Braithwaite was elected on September 25, 1963, earning 443 more votes than Progressive Conservative challenger Geoffrey Grossmith in an overwhelmingly white riding. Braithwaite felt that voter sympathy for the civil-rights movement in the United States hadn’t been a factor in his win. “It was enthusiasm that did it,” he told the Toronto Star. “We were very short of money but the hard work of the grass roots workers added up to an avalanche.”

Braithwaite’s first speech in the legislature made an impact. During the throne-speech debate on February 4, 1964, he raised the issue of language in the Separate Schools Act that continued to permit the existence of segregated Black schools. “There has not been a need for such schools since before the beginning of this century,” he told his fellow MPPs. “Those days have passed.” His comments met with applause and spurred the government to action: just over a month later, Minister of Education William Davis eliminated the provisions, and within a year the last de facto segregated school closed.

In March 1966, Braithwaite suggested that the legislature’s page program should include women. He said he’d been inspired by high-school students who’d asked him why all pages were boys. “I didn’t know so I asked and nobody else knew either,” he told the Toronto Star. While reaction was mixed among existing pages (some of whom thought the notion of letting girls in was silly), the idea gained traction, and the first female page was appointed in 1971.

According to one of his sons, though, Briathwaite later said that in his early days there, Queen’s Park hadn’t been “a very pleasant environment.” During a debate on March 1, 1965, he questioned Minister of Transport Irwin Haskett about issues municipalities were experiencing thanks to a legal loophole that prevented them from prohibiting ice-cream trucks.

“Vanilla or chocolate?” one MPP shouted. “What about watermelons?” yelled another from the government backbench.

Braithwaite told the Globe and Mail that he “didn’t hear anything officially” but noted there was a group of Tory MPPs known for heckling everyone. “I don’t worry about them,” he said. “Frankly I just remember where it is coming from.”

The next day, Premier John Robarts noted that, while the nature of the legislature led to insults intended in a humorous manner, “through such casual remarks can large misunderstandings arise.” He suggested that all MPPs should maintain respect for the legislature and its members to retain the confidence of their constituents. Liberal leader Andrew Thompson said that no remarks made in the room should “be tainted with any hint of prejudice.”

Lambton East MPP Lorne Henderson rose and, while insisting he didn’t recall having made the comment about watermelons, said that if he had said it, “it could only have been in a manner of friendship and good humour and would have no other connotation.” Several newspapers noted the irony that, earlier in the year, Henderson — whose riding included several historical sites related to the Underground Railroad — had supported a renovation effort for the Uncle Tom’s Cabin museum in Dresden.

Braithwaite accepted the apologies and told the legislature that the matter was closed.

A Windsor Star editorial observed that whoever made the remarks might have thought they were being facetious but had displayed bad taste and extreme rudeness. “Any member of the Legislature who makes crude remarks based on Mr. Braithwaite’s colour is reflecting far more on himself than on Mr. Braithwaite,” the paper wrote. “Mr. Braithwaite showed his character by not getting flustered by them.”

Braithwaite was re-elected in 1967 and 1971 and served as the Liberal critic for labour and social services. After a break, he returned to the political arena in 1982, winning a seat on Etobicoke’s Board of Control by a margin that also gave him a seat on Metropolitan Toronto council. Though his political career ended in 1988, the remainder of his life was filled with a long list of honours, including the Order of Canada (1997) and the Order of Ontario (2005). In 1999, he became the first Black bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Following his death in 2012, Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute in Scarborough named an Afrocentric program in his honour.

Braithwaite himself said that the part he played in deleting the Separate Schools Act and bringing the era of segregated Black schools in Ontario to a close had been "perhaps my greatest accomplishment."

Sources: the December 2, 1959, edition of the Calgary Herald; the August 30, 1963, September 11, 1963, March 2, 1965, March 3, 1965, and April 21, 2012, editions of the Globe and Mail; the April 29, 2014, edition of the Hansard of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario; the August 12, 1963, August 23, 1963, September 9, 1963, September 26, 1963, February 5, 1964, March 3, 1965, and March 23, 1966, editions of the Toronto Star; the February 13, 1965, and March 3, 1965, editions of the Windsor Star; and a January 7, 2017, post on ronfanfair.com.

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